Kawhi Leonard might be out, but Clippers say he’s still making impact

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With the Clippers trailing Utah by 22 points Friday, the team’s coaches retreated to a room separate from the rest of the locker room inside Staples Center to discuss adjustments to turn around Game 6.

Following them inside was a 6-foot-7 visitor.

Kawhi Leonard “came into the coaches’ office, just talking about different strategies and just wanted to know our game plan,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “How we are going to start, and what’s our coverages and things like that.”

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Absent for a third consecutive game Sunday, when the Clippers’ lost 120-114 to Phoenix in the opening game of the franchise’s first Western Conference finals, Leonard has not been missing entirely. Teammates and coaches described the All-NBA forward as “very engaged” while continuing his recovery from a strained right knee in Southern California rather than travel to Phoenix.

“Big brother, leader, a guy who still has confidence in his team,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “We know he’s battling what he’s battling, and he’s doing everything he can to get back with us. He’s been here in spirit. He’s been here vocally. He’s been with the team. He’s making sure we’re good and giving us his best wishes. Still checking in. Keeping up to date.

“Like I said, he’s doing everything he can to still have an impact on this team while he’s away and doing everything he can to make sure he gets back as fast as possible. We would love to have him.”

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The Clippers attest that seeing this side of Leonard has not been unusual this season. During training camp in December, center Serge Ibaka, who had experienced Leonard’s interaction with teammates in Toronto, said he had seen Leonard “really trying to be more vocal” and that he had “been communicating with everybody.” Lue has previously called Leonard’s decision to resume playing on consecutive nights when healthy something he had not done since 2017, a decision that had built more trust within the locker room.

When Leonard and Paul George missed a pair of road games in January because of the league’s health and safety protocols, Leonard was said to be communicating regularly with coaches to understand the game plan.

The prognosis for Leonard’s strained right knee remains uncertain, with the team mum beyond the initial diagnosis of an indefinite return, but Lue acknowledged Saturday that ahead of the conference finals, “we have to prepare like he’s not playing, you know, just kind of go from there.”

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Leonard had averaged more than 30 points per game in the playoffs before planting awkwardly and injuring the knee while dribbling up court late in a Game 4 win against Utah. He had called his health “good” immediately after but that has not been the case.

“He’s still active, still talking to the team,” center DeMarcus Cousins said Sunday. “Putting his expertise on the game and just giving advice, pointers for guys that had to fill in for him and guys filling in for roles that are backups now.

“You know, he’s still being that leader for the team, using his voice. And obviously the situation sucks that he’s in, but he’s engaged as much as he can be right now.”

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Video highlights from the Phoenix Suns’ 120-114 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on June 20, 2021, in Phoenix.

The Clippers aren’t the only team in this series relying on guidance from afar from one of its stars. Suns All-Star point guard Chris Paul remains in the NBA’s health and safety protocols for an undetermined amount of time, and Phoenix coach Monty Williams said before Game 1 that he would not “boo hoo” the situation knowing that the Clippers were without both Ibaka, because of back surgery, and Leonard.

Paul dialed into the team’s postgame locker room via video chat, continuing a practice started this season whenever a Suns player could not be present.

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“He was holding up this, finger one, it was one game,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said. “We did what we were supposed to do. We held them down and we made plays on both ends of the court. But he was very excited. He had a smile on his face. But he’s eager to get back.

“Obviously everybody knows what type of player he is. He’s ready to get back out here with us. And we just got to continue to take care of the uncertainty and come in each and every day and be prepared as much as possible with or without him.”

Without Paul in the final minutes, where he typically commands the ball, the team wobbled late in the fourth quarter, their 10-point lead down to two with less than a minute to play.

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“We definitely missed him,” Crowder said. “I think the last three minutes of that game, that’s when we felt like, ‘Where the hell is Chris at?’ That’s the point here, he’s that guy. He’s that guy to make that play for everybody.”

He made the right call Sunday. It just came after the final buzzer, speaking to Suns guard Devin Booker on the phone as he made his way to the locker room.

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Clippers-Suns finals schedule

(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

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